Friday, 20 May 2016

Is This The End For Fake Reviews?

Is This The End For Fake Reviews?

Not every online review can be trusted. Some companies write their own – or pay someone else to say nice things about them. The days of fake reviews may be numbered, though. Sarah Dobbs investigates

Online reviews can be incredibly useful, and reading them has become an indispensable part of shopping, no matter what you’re buying: reviews of clothes can tell you if sizes tend to run big or small, reviews of washing machines can tell you if they’re reliable or tend to make a lot of noise, reviews of cars can tell you how fuel efficient they tend to be, or whether the upholstery stains easily… You get the idea.

Before making any kind of purchase, it makes sense to check out the reviews of the item you’re considering – or the company you’re considering buying it from. Services, as well as goods, tend to be reviewed online, so if you need a plumber you can see whether the one you’re considering has left a trail of unhappy customers behind them or not.

Unfortunately, you can’t always trust what you read online. Unscrupulous types might take it upon themselves to write glowing reviews of themselves and their products, and you might never be able to tell the difference. There are even whole businesses based around writing fake positive reviews online, to help businesses boost their reputation under false pretences.

The good news is, it’s not an issue we just have to shrug our shoulders and try to forget about. Recently, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has started cracking down on companies who trade in writing fake reviews, and Amazon has begun taking action, too – but it might be a big job. Let’s take a closer look at these fakes, where they come from, and what’s being done about them…

Trust No-one

By their very nature, fake reviews are designed to look authentic, so it’s tough to say for sure exactly how many fakes there might be out there. According to the CMA’s recent report, though, approximately £23 billion of consumer spending every year is influenced by online reviews, and half of all UK adults use online reviews to help them make decisions about how to spend their money.

As if that weren’t enough to tempt businesses into faking a couple of false positives, a study from Harvard Business School from a couple of years ago found that having better online reviews leads to a direct increase in profits. According to the researchers, bumping up their Yelp star ratings by one saw restaurants raking in up to 9% extra – not a margin to be sniffed at.

So where do these reviews come from? Going back to the CMA report, it turns out there are a few different ways for business owners to improve their online reputation. The first, most obvious way, is to get an employee to bash out a few five-star raves. Depending on the business, those reviews might be posted in a few different places: for hotels, restaurants, and other tourist attractions, TripAdvisor is the obvious target; tradespeople might opt for sites like CheckATrade or; and for everything else, there’s Amazon. If all you want is for there to be one or two glowing reviews of your product in the obvious places, getting an existing employee to post them is the easiest way to fake it.

Beyond that, though, it gets a bit more nefarious. The CMA found cases of companies offering rewards to customers who wrote positive reviews, and a whole economy based around the provision of fake reviews. Sites like Fiverr ( are commonly used by businesses in search of people to post fake reviews – using either their own names or fake profiles they’ve set up in the past and built up a history with, to give their reviews a bit of credibility. A BBC investigation into fake reviews discovered that some fakers even steal the names and photos of the recently deceased to attempt to legitimise their lies, which gives the whole enterprise a grim extra twist.

For the really ambitious (or deceptive), there are so-called ‘marketing’ companies who’ll write hundreds of reviews across multiple platforms, all without the reviewers ever setting eyes on the things they’re writing about. The publishing industry seems to be a particular target for unsavoury reviewers, with several enterprising  freelancers offering firsttime authors adoring reviews of their book on various websites which, they claim, will help boost their books onto bestseller lists. The going rate is around $1000 (in the region of £700) for 50 reviews.

To make matters worse, the CMA noted that some review sites accept money from businesses to suppress bad reviews and publish only positive ones, all in the name of ‘reputation management.’ With all of that going on, any even vaguely complimentary reviews can start to look a bit suspect.

Striking Back

Before you give up reading reviews entirely, though, take heart. Sites like Amazon and TripAdvisor are aware of the problem, and they’re working to remedy it. Plus, as previously mentioned, organisations like the CMA are starting to flex their legal powers to crack down on dodginess.

Take TripAdvisor; anyone can submit a review for any listing on the site, without any proof of actually having been there. Reviews are screened, however, using automated tools designed to flag up fake review warning signs (and spam) to be checked over by the company’s moderators to check out. The site also relies on its community of users to flag anything that might need investigating, so in theory, the reviews should be fairly trustworthy. In practice, there’s still plenty of chance for the better written fakes to make it onto the site, especially if they’re for lesserknown establishments that maybe don’t already have many reviews.

Amazon, too, is fighting hard to get rid of fake reviews on its pages. The online retail giant has filed lawsuits against literally thousands of reviewers for leaving false or misleading reviews on products it sells; back in April 2015, Amazon targeted a number of websites offering reviews for sale, including and, while in October, it went after Fiverr users who were advertising their reviewing skills through the site.

According to Amazon’s filing, the defendants were variously accused of trademark infringement, false advertising, and of violating the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Consumer Protection Act. That suggests that at least part of Amazon’s ire was over the names the fake review sites were using, but the false advertising is genuinely an issue too, because Amazon’s reputation could take a hit if it allowed fake reviews to go unchallenged. To that end, Amazon is also using software to ensure that reviews by verified customers are more prominent on product pages than others.

Then there’s the CMA’s action. As part of its investigation into online reviews, the CMA discovered a company called Total SEO & Marketing Ltd, which had published more than 800 fake reviews online between 2014 and 2015. The reviews were spread across 26 different websites, and raved enthusiastically about some 86 different small businesses. When challenged with its breaches of UK consumer law, Total SEO agreed to stop writing these reviews, and to take down the ones it had already published. On top of that, the CMA got in touch with all of Total SEO’s clients, explaining that the work Total SEO had done was illegal, and advising them against hiring anyone to do similar work in future. No financial penalty was issued, presumably because Total SEO cooperated; if it hadn’t, there might have been further consequences.

Be Careful Out There

Fighting fake reviews feels a bit like fighting spam, and the motivations driving the proliferation of both are similar, too. It’s a tough battle to fight, and as the tools for detecting and weeding out fake reviews improve, the people writing them will only get cleverer.

The whole thing is rendered trickier by the fact that companies really want legitimate customers to write reviews – if you’ve ever bought anything online you’ve probably experienced the nagging emails that seem desperate for you to go back and review your item – and some of the methods for discouraging fake reviews also discourage real ones. Last year food critic Jay Rayner spearheaded a Twitter campaign asking TripAdvisor to require reviewers to scan in their receipts before writing restaurant reviews, to prove they’d really eaten there; it would definitely stop people from buying fake reviews, but might also put off genuinely happy customers, because who wants to faff around with scanning receipts?

The crackdown from the CMA is promising, though, and will hopefully serve to put other businesses off selling similar services. Ditto Amazon’s legal action – because you know Amazon can afford brilliant lawyers, if necessary.

For now, though, if you’re considering buying something or trying out a new restaurant that seems to have reviews that vary wildly in their opinions of the product, be a bit careful. Some of those reviewers might not be who they say they are.

How To Spot A Fake Review

The whole point of fake reviews is to make it seem like they’re just the enthusiastic opinions of genuine customers. Sometimes they’re pretty believable, but at other times it can be relatively easy to spot that something’s amiss. Here are some warning signs to look out for, before buying something on the word of an online review:

Too much detail
Genuine customers probably won’t refer to things by their full model numbers. If it’s a review of a new graphics card, then maybe the tech specs are relevant, but otherwise, reviews that include too much precise technical detail should raise a red flag.

Too little detail
While too much detail might mean the manufacturers are talking themselves up, too little detail could be a sign of someone writing a review without ever having actually seen the product in question. It’s a tricky distinction, but it’s also something that sometimes, you can just tell.

Too many reviews, too soon
If a new product has tons of reviews, especially if they were all posted in a short space of time, that could well indicate that the reviews have been bought and paid for.

Similar phrasing
If there are lots of very positive reviews that all seem to use the same few phrases, that could suggest they were all written by the same person – someone who’s bashing out fake reviews for a living.

Too glowing
Maybe you’re reading a review from someone who’s just really excited by their new purchase, but be wary of anything with too much hyperbole. If the reviews seem to have been written by customers in raptures over their new washing machine or generic phone charger, something might be wrong.

Too negative
Again, it seems strange that being too negative might be as much of an indicator of a fake review, but absolutely slating a product and recommending a rival in the same post can be a clue that it’s part of a smear campaign. Of course, it also might be genuine – so, if you can look at the reviewers other reviews, to see if they’ve been on a spree of similar sounding missives.

At the end of the day, there’s no way of knowing 100% for sure that what you’re reading is a real review, but if you’re going to make a big purchase, try reading reviews on multiple different websites to get as wide a range of opinions as possible. That way, you should minimise your risks of being fooled.

Can Artificial Intelligence Weed Out The Fakes?

There are some things in a review that might indicate you’re reading a fake, and generally you might find you just get a ‘feeling’ about a review. Computers, however, may be able to do and even better job?

At least that’s what researchers at Cornell University reckoned, so they developed Review Skeptic, a tool for testing the truthfulness of reviews. By analysing the kind of language and sentence structure used in a review, the tool then decides whether or not it’s a real review, or a puff piece.

At the moment, it’s best at judging hotel reviews – but even so, in tests, the Review Skeptic had a 90% hit rate, while human subjects only had a 50% chance of spotting the fakes. The Cornell researchers suggested that something like this could be used as a first line of defence on review websites like Yelp, where it could weed out the majority of fakes before they ever got published.

If you want to try it for yourself, you can paste in a review at In Micro Mart’s completely unscientific tests, it had a 100% hit rate, even when the reviews weren’t about hotels, so it might well be worth a try.

Using Bad Reviews As A Weapon

If you’re an eBay seller, you might already be nodding in recognition, but it turns out that online reviews can be a double-edged sword. Just as businesses can plant made-up reviews of their product online, so customers, too, have spotted a way to make online reviews work in their favour – by threatening to leave negative reviews if they aren’t given discounts, preferential treatment, or even freebies.

Just as eBay sellers might feel held to ransom over a buyer threatening to leave negative feedback for unjustified reasons, so too might restaurants and hotels start to feel under fire from reviewers threatening one-star reviews of their establishments. It’s hard to prove, of course, since opinions are so subjective, but the CMA heard several reports from businesses who felt they’d been blackmailed by keyboard-happy shoppers. So that’s yet another thing to bear in mind when you’re reading online reviews.

DIY Fake Reviews

Some of the worst culprits for writing fake reviews are, well, writers. Over the past few years, there have been several scandals where authors have been caught writing 10/10 reviews of their own work under an array of different pseudonyms. Crime writer R.J. Ellory copped to giving himself positive reviews on Amazon, while his fellow crime novelist Stephen Leather was also found to be writing damning reviews of his rivals’ books, talking up his own work in the process.

Even screenwriters aren’t immune from the lure of self-promotion; for example, illustrator and screenwriter Monte M. Moore posted a 10-star review of his own movie, Spirit Hunters, on the IMDB. In the review, he mentioned getting “the opportunity to review the screener”, but didn’t try very hard to hide his identity, using the same handle he uses for his professional Twitter account. Oh dear.